The War in the West: Shiloh to Vicksburg

For the first half of the American Civil War the fighting in Western theater along the Mississippi River was very different from that in the East. In the East until the Battle of Gettysburg it seemed as though the Army of the Potomac could do no right, and Lee's Army of Northern Virginia could do no wrong. With the exception of the tactical draw at Antietam on September 17, 1862, the war in the East was heavily one-sided in favor of the Confederacy. The situation in the West was very different. The main reason for that was the rise and success of General Ulysses S.  Grant.

U.S. GrantUlysses S. Grant attended West Point and graduated in 1843. A fair student but superb horseman, he did not like Academy life and planned to resign from the Army as soon as his four-year service obligation was complete. The Mexican-American war, however, intervened in his plans. During that conflict Captain Grant served under General Zachary Taylor and General Winfield Scott, where he learned the art of war by closely observing their tactics. While serving in the Quartermaster Corps, he became knowledgeable about the logistics requirements of an Army in war, knowledge that would serve him well later. When given an opportunity to command a company in combat, he proved his heroism under fire and was cited for bravery. Following the war Grant served two isolated tours of duty in the West away from his family, where life in the peacetime Army did not suit him well. He acquired a reputation for heavy drinking, and following disciplinary action, he resigned from the Army in 1854. He struggled to make a good living for himself, his wife and two sons, but had difficulty supporting his family.

When the Civil War began in 1861 Grant's patriotism led him to volunteer his services as a former regular officer. When his commission was not restored, he was appointed colonel of an Illinois regiment by the state governor. Superb in the training of his regiment, he was soon given a combat command. He was successful in his initial battles and was promoted to brigadier general. In larger actions, he won several major victories. He then began the Vicksburg campaign that closed the Mississippi River to the Confederacy. The battle was one of the most decisive of the war and eventually led him to the position of command of all Union forces.

Forts Henry & Donelson & Shiloh: Grant in Command

In early 1862 Grant teamed up with Navy Flag Officer Andrew Foote, whose gunboats ranged up and down the Mississippi, Ohio and Tennessee Rivers. The two officers became a highly effective Army-Navy team in moving the war into central Tennessee. Fort Henry on the Tennessee River and Fort Donelson on the Cumberland were the two barriers to the interior of Tennessee. Grant's first move sent Flag Officer Foote's gunboats up the Tennessee to bombard Fort Henry, which was soon evacuated. The Confederate troops who managed to escape marched to Fort Donelson.

Grant’s troops camped at Fort Henry and then moved overland toward Fort Donelson, while Foote’s gunboats took some of Grants men down the Tennessee, up the Ohio and up the Cumberland toward Donelson, where the gunboats would be used for bombardment. The Confederate command at Donelson was passed to General Simon Bolivar Buckner, an old acquaintance and friend of Grant. Feeling that he could get favorable terms from Grant, Buckner, being surrounded, sent a message asking for terms. Grant’s response made him famous: “No terms except unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted. I propose to move immediately upon your works.” From that point forward, General U. S. Grant became known as “Unconditional Surrender” Grant. General Buckner surrendered 15,000 troops and many badly needed supplies. Grant then moved farther up the Tennessee River and into southwestern Tennessee, and his army camped on the bank of the Tennessee River at Pittsburgh Landing. Grant's victories at Forts Henry and Donelson secured the Cumberland and Tennessee rivers for the use of the Union. Western Tennessee was now largely under Union control.

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Not far from the Grant's camp on the Tennessee River lay a wilderness in which the small Shiloh Baptist Church was located. Grant assumed a relaxed posture for his troops, not realizing that a Confederate force under General Albert Sidney Johnston was closer than he imagined. An aggressive fighter, Johnston decided to attack Grant, who was not expecting the encounter. On April 6, 1862, a Sunday morning, Grant's army was surprised by a Confederate attack led by General Johnston, who was reputed to be the finest general in the Confederate Army. Grant was not present when the fighting at Shiloh began, but he soon made his way to the battlefield, only to see his troops backed up against the Tennessee River. They were in a dire position at the end of the first day's fighting. Only a fierce defense in an area that became known as the “hornet's nest” saved the day for Grant. That night, however, troops under the command of General Don Carlos Buell, who had been in command in central Tennessee, arrived, crossed the Tennessee and reinforced Grant’s lines. On the following day Grant’s men reversed the tide and drove the Confederates from the battlefield. During the action, General Johnston was mortally wounded.

Although Grant was successful, the casualties at Shiloh were appalling, numbering over 23,000 on both sides. (The name Shiloh means “place of peace” in Hebrew.) But Grant's successes did not automatically win him support. Tales of the drinking problem that had led to his resignation from the Army, as well as political jealousies among his generals, kept him from gaining favorable attention at United States Army headquarters, despite his victories in the field. Even after his victories at Henry, Donelson and Shiloh, rumors surrounding Grant's conduct continued in Washington, and he was once again removed from the top command post. Concerned about the rumors, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton sent New York Tribune reporter Charles Dana on an ostensible “inspection trip” of Grant's command, but his actual charge was to spy on Grant. Dana not only reported that rumors about Grant's drinking were untrue, but he sent favorable opinions of Grant's competence back to Washington. When President Lincoln was told of Grant's alleged drinking problem, he said, “Find out what kind of whiskey Grant drinks and send a barrel to each one of my generals.” Though the statement is perhaps apocryphal, there is no question that Lincoln was bolstered by Grant's series of victories. Lincoln needed generals who could fight.

In the spring of 1863, Major General Grant set out on his most important venture of the war, his attempt to capture the fortress city of Vicksburg, Mississippi.

The Critical Vicksburg Campaign | Summary of Grant's military career.
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